Syndication goes independent

Suppliers tout overlooked shows

At the 44th annual NATPE sales bazaar, 2007 is shaping up as the year of the boutique indie.

With a lackluster development season for firstrun strips from the major Hollywood syndicators, companies like Program Partners, Debmar/Mercury, October Moon, Starz Media, MGM and Litton are taking advantage of the lull.

Each of these suppliers hits Vegas today with plans to unveil and launch an original strip or otherwise trumpet an overlooked off-net or off-cable show.

“This is the most activity that I’ve seen so close to NATPE in a number of years,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, which represents hundreds of stations. “And it’s the non-major distributors that are showing off their entrepreneurial skills.”

If stations sign up for the indie-distributed series, the chutzpah of these companies could pay off in big bucks — and re-energize a sagging syndie biz.

Among the companies hoping to make a splash in Sin City:

  • Ritch Colbert’s Program Partners is unveiling “Crosswords,” a fresh gameshow from none other than Merv Griffin, creator of long-running syndie stalwarts “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” It will be pitched to stations outside the top three markets in all-cash deals.

  • Chuck Larson’s October Moon is taking out comedy gameshow “Laugh Off,” produced by Bunim-Murray, which will be offered to stations in all-cash deals.

  • MGM’s newly revved-up syndie unit under Jim Packer is licensing two off-cable shows, “Reno 911” and “Chappelle’s Show,” for latenight slots.

  • Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein’s Debmar/Mercury is selling “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” as an original sitcom strip for fall 2008 (following its 15-month premiere run on TBS), as well as taking over syndie duties for perennial gamer “Family Feud” and the off-cable sci-fi series “Dead Zone.”

  • Hank Cohen’s year-old Trifecta is bringing three off-net projects to the tradeshow: “Hollywood Shootout,” “UFC Wired” and “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.”

  • David Ozer at Starz Media is bringing out an off-Sci Fi action series called “Painkiller Jane,” starring Kristanna Loken, which premieres on the channel in March. It’s being marketed in syndie as a double-run weekend series for the fall.

  • Dave Morgan’s Litton Distribution is buffing up the classic reruns of “Baywatch” and has already cleared most of the top 20 markets in all-barter deals for the strip.

While these are all quite disparate firstrun projects or offbeat repeats, the companies behind them have become emboldened by the skittishness of the majors.

October Moon’s Larsen told Daily Variety: “In the past, the indies would back off, figuring that they couldn’t go head-to-head with the major studios. But, with few exceptions, the studios have abandoned firstrun syndication this year.”

The big guns are increasingly reluctant to spend $10 million or more in the first year to create and launch a strip whose chances of success are slim. The failure rate in syndication is even higher than in the network biz: Nine out of 10 series get pinkslipped in the first season.

Key players like King World/Paramount and Disney are sitting on the sidelines this go-round. And although Warner Bros. is in talks with stations on such projects as “TMZ” and “Celebrity Jury,” there’s no guarantee the studio will end up putting them on the air.

At the last minute, it looks as though NBC Universal — which toyed with a syndie outing for the Peacock hit “Deal or No Deal” until host Howie Mandel’s pay demands made them blanch — is concocting an entry: It is, of all things, a talk project built around Steve Wilkos, the bald-headed guy who breaks up the fights on “The Jerry Springer Show” and acts as substitute host when Springer goes on hiatus.

The only firm projects from the big guns on the eve of NATPE are a courtshow contender from Sony (“Judge David Young”) and two from Twentieth TV: a Fox News-produced gabfest (“The Morning Show With Mike & Juliet”) and a gameshow (“Temptation”).

The smaller indie players are variously concocting opportunistic deals that the majors would never countenance.

The business plan of Program Partners, for example, allows it to go ahead with “Crosswords” even if the company can’t strike deals in New York, L.A. or Chicago. The contracts would be cash only — the distrib would get no national advertising time, as Madison Avenue wouldn’t be interested in a show with no clearance in the Big Three markets.

The syndication sales bazaar unspools in Vegas Tuesday through Thursday, with a related mobile confab unfolding today in the same venue. Some 8,000 attendees from around the world are expected to walk the convention floor, with the U.S. contingent repping 70% of the total.

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